Trip 2005


Spiegel Online 11.4.2005


The Last of the Survivors

Sixty years ago, the US Army liberated Buchenwald. At a memorial service this weekend, survivors came together for what will probably be their last reunion. When the next 10-year-anniversary comes most of the octogenarians will have passed away.

WEIMAR -- How do you remember something that you didn't experience? Something that nobody can explain -- not even the people who were there. Something that's almost impossible to imagine.

Sixty years ago, United States Army troops liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, the former home to Goethe and Schiller and a place where German culture enjoyed its pinnacle and society hit its nadir. On Sunday, more than 500 survivors came together for what will likely be their last reunion at the memorial site. Now many are taking steps to ensure that their memories of what happened here will endure, even after their deaths.

"Soon there won't be any living witnesses of the Nazi camps," said Jorge Semprun, author, former Spanish Minister of Culture and Buchenwald survivor, who once bore the prisoner number 44904.

With the generation of survivors now dying of old age, the burden of remembrance is being passed on to a younger generation. Semprun is convinced those memories will persist: "The Jewish memory of the camps will be long-lasting and enduring," he said. But that will require a new generation to become caretakers and administrators of those memories. To that end, Paul Spiegel, who heads the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has called upon the younger generations to take the "baton of memory." He has proposed that young Jews should "adopt" a victim of the concentration camps and to become the living custodian of that person's memory after he or she passes away.

On Sunday, many of those young people could be seen accompanying the former prisoners as they passed through the camp's wrought iron gate, with its cynical "Jedem das Seine" (To Each His Own) sign. Some came Sunday for the first time since the liberation of the camp's remaining 21,000 prisoners. "It feels good to stand here as a free person," said one 86-year-old, who had just shaken hands with a veteran from the US Third Army that freed the camp from the Nazis on April 11, 1945 under the command of General George Smith Patton.

Shortly before the Allies arrived, there were still 50,000 prisoners at Buchenwald. But as the troops approached, the SS began to evacuate them. Buchenwald's commandant ordered 28,000 people to be taken either by foot or train to other camps including Dachau, Flossenbuerg and the Theresienstadt ghetto. Although the exact number of people who perished in the death march is not known, at least 10,000 died of hunger, exhaustion or murder. In total, of the nearly one quarter-million people from all across Europe who entered the gates into Buchenwald between July 1937 until April 1945, some 56,000 died there as well.

Now, sixty years later, the painful memories of the crimes committed at Buchenwald remain. And in some ways, those memories have themselves been liberated. Buchenwald is located in what used to be East Germany. And for decades, the Communist regime propagated the glorious myth that anti-fascist communists imprisoned at Buchenwald by the Nazis had themselves liberated the camp. But history has proven that the East German government exaggerated its mythic tale of heroism.
The camp did have a resistance movement, but many of the communist prisoners played roles in the camp's administration and often profited from their positions -- to the detriment of other prisoners. In the historically accurate account, the SS didn't flee until they heard the American tanks approaching.

For decades, the East Germans also glossed over what became of Buchenwald after the Americans left and the Soviets took control. In August 1945, the camp was turned over to the Soviet military administration and Buchenwald became "Special Camp No. 2," an internment camp for Nazis and war criminals. Until it was closed, 30,000 people were interned at the camp under Soviet administration and more than 7,000 perished

For the most part, the record has been set straight. And even if that record isn't accepted by everyone, there is an atmosphere today in which both sides seem willing to accept the other's versions without making accusations of historical revisionism -- at least publicly. On Sunday, a group of Germans who still believe the camp's prisoners liberated Buchenwald held a ceremony of their own at the nearby National Buchenwald Memorial. The East German communists erected the monument in the mid-1950s, complete with outsized sculptures that monumentalize communist valor while at the same time denouncing communist dissidents. In his novel "What a Beautiful Sunday," Holocaust survivor Semprun described the monument as a "hideous bell tower."

A few hours earlier, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder spoke of the freeing of Buchenwald by the US Army as a "liberation from outside as well as -- and that mustn't be forgotten -- a liberation from inside." But perhaps the most informative words on the matter came a decade ago, at the 50th anniversary memorial service, when Semprun said that one should not be content with role of either victim or hero. "We know, of course," he said, "that both avoid critical view and refuse self-critical soul-searching."

On Sunday, there was little talk of heroes -- just the need to keep the memory of Buchenwald alive. To that end, the International Buchenwald Committee symbolically passed the legacy of the survivors to the next generation, to safeguard and share, like Steffen Tromsdorff, grandson of Buchenwald survivor Klaus Tromsdorff.

With reporting by Philipp Wittrock